By CONOR NICHOLL
In December 2018, Sports In Kansas released its annual football awards. Eight honorees, one from each class, collected Offensive Player of the Year. The awards went to 6A Blue Valley North's Graham Mertz, 5A Aquinas' Joe Michalski, 4A Pittsburg's Dylan White, 3A Pratt's Travis Theis, 2A Hoisington's Wyatt Pedigo, and 1A Ell-Saline's Nick Davenport.
Eight-Man, Division I was St. Francis running back Jordan Raby, and Eight-Man, Division II to Osborne quarterback Darnell Holloway.
Everyone graduated, except Pedigo, who has posted his second straight 2,000-yard rushing season. Six of the other seven remaining squads have taken an offensive dip, a few significantly. BVN had a four-win drop and went from 43.5 points per game to 22.4 this year.
Pittsburg also has a four-win drop and averaged 21.7 points per contest after 33.4 last fall. Pratt had an eight-win drop to 2-7 and averaged 13.7 points per game. Ell-Saline had its second straight 7-3 season, though went from 34 points per contest to 26.8.
Aquinas and Osborne, which are still undefeated and ranked No. 1 in its respective classes, had smaller points per game decreases.
The only team to improve is St. Francis.
Raby, a four-year starter, rushed for 1,425 yards. He was a state placer in multiple sprints/relays at the 1A state meet last May. SF has capably replaced him with junior 185-pound running back Shadyron Blanka, along with its veteran offensive line and senior quarterback Brady Dinkel, a four-year starter on defense, three seasons on offense. This is Blanka's first year at running back. He was a returning starter at linebacker.
St. Francis' run-heavy single wing churned out 42.2 points per contest in '18, and 48.4 this year.
“Jordan was a great player, no doubt, but we have Shadyron Blanka,” second-year coach Nick Fawcett said. “He took Jordan's place, and he is actually faster than Jordan and bigger than Jordan. Every team is going to miss a kid like Jordan Raby. … Shadyron, I think he is one of the best running backs in the state, best football players, too.”
The Indians' physicality has led to a No. 2 ranking in Eight-Man, Division I after last Friday's 50-0 mercy-rule road win versus Jetmore-Hodgeman County in the state quarterfinals.
“That's just how I grew up,” Fawcett said. “I liked physical, smashmouth football, and these kids here, these kids are really tough farm kids, corn-fed, just tough kids.”
Dinkel delivered 1,049 rushing yards last year. Entering last week, he had rushed for 1,425 yards, and Blanka had delivered 1,198.
“We knew that we had somebody that was more than capable of replacing Jordan,” Fawcett said. “Not to say that Jordan is replaceable, but Shadyron is a special player and talent, too.”
Both players cleared 100 yards in the Hodgeman County victory. Dinkel and Blanka either take the direct snap and run behind the wall of blockers that includes multiple juniors: 230-pounder Colton Neitzel, 205-pounder Jesse Baxter, 195-pounder Adam Krien, 180-pounder Tyson Poling, and senior Jayce Nider (160 pounds).
“When you have got guys like Neitzel and Jesse Baxter, I mean, I think they are the two-best linemen in the state,” Fawcett said.
Fawcett has had several people ask about the Indians' blocking scheme. SF has declined to give out many secrets. Fawcett said the blocking schemes are “kind of our secret sauce.”
“But our whole system is just as simple as could be,” Fawcett said.
Junior 125-pound running back Josiah Sims, a transfer last year, has shown a new attitude this fall and has run with tenacity. Sims has also played nose guard and has enjoyed going up against bigger players.
“Their front line is a very basic scheme it seems like,” Hodgeman County coach Matt Housman said. “They are not pulling anybody or doing anything, switching or crossing, or anything like that, but what the backfield is doing is kind of more what's going on. They are back here in the gun, and the two backs just see somebody … They pick them up, or see a hole that they can get through there or make the hole bigger, so there is a lot of things.”
St. Francis (11-0) will play host to Leoti-Wichita County (10-1) in the state semifinals Friday. WC has tied the best finish in school history and is into the final four for the first time in 29 years. SF defeated Wichita County, 46-0, in Week 6 in district play.
In '18, SF lost to eventual champion Central Plains in the state semifinals, the only loss in the two years under Fawcett. Additionally, St. Francis has allowed just 42 points – on pace to be the second-best eight-man scoring defense of the last 15 years behind CP's 34 points allowed last fall.
St. Francis has reached one state finale in school history, a Division I loss to Osborne in 2016.
“If we keep working hard like we are in practice, keep staying dedicated to our program and to each other, and just having fun while we are playing, and we will have a really good shot,” Blanka said of a state title.
St. Francis hits the blocking sled everyday behind longtime assistant coach Scott “Hoagie” Carmichael. He has served in various roles with the school and program since 1982.
“Our line is amazing,” Blanka said. “They always have the holes there for us. They have worked all day, everyday on blocking, and they have really got it going. They know who they are blocking every time, catch blitzes, they are just great.”
Against Hodgeman County, St. Francis led 16-0 after the first quarter on a pair of runs from Dinkel. In the second quarter, Blanka scored on runs of 18, 50, and seven yards. Then, Dinkel tallied a 25-yard scoring run just before halftime. Blanka ended the scoring with a seven-yard scoring run.
“They just sit back there and so patient,” Housman said of SF's backs. “And they will hit it fast if there is a hole. If there is not, then you sit back there and bounce and wait for something to open up. So it's really tough. You shoot gaps on them.
“One guy, they are just looking for one block, and they have been doing that all year and doing it last year, too,” he added. “So it's really tough to just put guys in a spot. But this is where they are going to run the ball - even if it looks like they are supposed to run it in the 'B' gap on the left, they can bounce it clear outside or even back to the other side.”
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